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Portugal and Spanish Wine Country

April 30-May 3
Edited and done May 19

Dear Friends and Families,

At the end of the last diary, I commented that we were "tired".  In Porto and in our other city visits, we had been walking 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day, up and down hills even.  Now we've solved the problem.  We moved to a place so steep that we simply can not walk much at all, but what we can do is sit on the baloney, sip wine,  and look out at the Douro River far below.  How did we get in such a situation?

d130430_00_track.jpg Leaving Porto on Tuesday was challenging since Gertrude, our friendly GPS, insisted on taking us across the center of the city, a place where no car is really welcome, but where many are fighting for the limited space.  Eventually, we did make it to the A3 freeway, heading east, to the wine-making valley of the River Douro.

d130430_01_narrow.jpg The goal was the village of Mesao-Frio, or at least close to the village.  Marianne had promised that our stay would be unlike the urban Porto digs.  Getting there was easy enough, a bit more than an hour outside of Porto, including a ten minute delay getting past the scene of a head-on collision on the narrow road after the broad A3.  A reminder that we would need to drive the twisty roads carefully.

 When we got to Casa Canilhas, we faced one more twist to maneuver as we turned into a driveway that dropped down the face of a vine-covered hill.  At least the part not covered by a wonderful huge house and garden was vine-covered.  Casa Canilhas turned out to be so inviting that we have hardly moved in 24-hours, except to have a couple of meals in nearby Mesao-Frio.

I'll let pictures tell the story.
Casa Canilhas
The view is spectacular and hard to describe.  The Casa sits at a bend in the Douro River, high on terraced hills.
d130430_70_night.jpg  Even at night, the valley is magical.
Wednesday started with photos in the vineyard behind the Casa.  Fun shooting and a good examination of the types of viticulture practiced here.  For a good explanation of this unique area, see the UNESCO World Heritage description.  The terraces really are a monument to centuries and more of growing grapes and producing wine, especially the fortified wine called "Port" after Porto, the city at the mouth of the Douro.
Later, we had good intentions of seeing the surrounding countryside and quaint villages and we made it up river as far as Pinhao, where we managed a quick stop to sample and buy local port wine at the Quinta das Carvalhas.   I also took flower pictures, from the winery gardens,  just to enjoy the day.
Our excursion was cut short by an illness of sorts and hurrying back to the comfort of the Casa seemed the most prudent course.  I'm sure it was.  Soon we were healthy and ready for lunch, another down-home feast and another siesta and quiet time-out on our veranda porch.  By the way, our step counters have not budged above 3,000 steps, just enough to indicate we are alive and mobile.
Lunch at a convivial restaurant called ... Convivio.  Simple setting, old American movie on TV, original art work on the wall, and more food and wine than we could possibly eat and drink.

On Thursday, after one last glimpse of the Casa Canilhas view, we headed north for another wine region.  We had wanted to drive, top down, on the side roads all the way to Guimaraes, but that hit some problems.  First, we got stuck behind some very slow trucks on twisty mountain roads, but the challenge of getting past the city of Almarante proved just too much.  Gertrude would only route us on the autostrada and manual navigation just had us circling the same streets, never finding the north-bound highway.  Oh well, top down on the freeway it was.

The next navigation difficulty was finding our new hotel, the Casa Sezim.  Gertrude first thought it was located in the middle of the toll road and only after some fine tuning did we shift to a location on the hill above the highway.  Of course, getting there was still challenging, since we needed to first navigate local neighborhoods. and then the final 200 yards was a rutted dirt driveway leading to a well-worn manor house.  We were wondering what we had gotten into.

We were greeted at the hotel entrance and led to our room.  It was like being escorted into an old museum, literally.  We were initially apprehensive at the obvious wear and tear, but we gradually came to recognize the beauty of the old environment.  So far, we have learned just a bit of the local history.  Casa Sezim was given to the family of the current owner in 1376 "for good works and service" by royalty of newly-independent Portugal.  In its current form, it is 64 hectares (about 125 acres), half devoted to vineyards and the rest to the buildings and yards for the winery and hotel businesses.  (See Wikipedia for an excellent discussion.  Or another by a local expat, Julie Dawn Fox).

Our room on the veranda level opened to the family quarters as well and these old rooms remain open during the day.  The walls are covered with exotic scenes depicted on painted silk.  I will try to explain the setting in pictures:
Casa Sezim front facade and view of back.
The yard inside the facade.  The main house is on the far side, offices on the left, and the fireplace lounge on the right.
Our room, ornate and opening up onto the ...
... veranda.  A great place for the welcome bottle of wine and to just look out at the view.
Other rooms in the main house.  Walls covered with silk or linen tapestries depicting scenes from around the world, as considered in the early 19th Century.
Very personal details, including family pictures.  The lady in the middle originally opened Casa Sezim for guests 20 years ago.  Sadly, her funeral was held in the house chapel during our visit.
The original work spaces in the right wing of the building had been converted into a wonderful lounge, library, and breakfast room.  It was also the best spot for wifi!
One morning I tried to capture the garden in the sunrise light.  It was a fun excursion and made me appreciate how much work was needed for a farm and vineyard like Casa Sezim.

After settling in, we drove back into town to explore Guimaraes.  The city was the site of the 1128 battle for independence from Spain and became the first capital of Portugal. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and last year was the "Capital of Culture".  Today the old center is a clean and well-restored collection of old buildings, mostly from the past two centuries but some much older.  Again, I'll try to tell our Guimaraes story in a picture collection:
Guimaraes town square and most of the downtown buildings had been recently restored, even cleaning the ancient tannery pits.
Don Alfonso Henriques, leader of independence along with Donna Marianne.
The fortress castle sits atop the highest hill.  Inside, the granite tower "keep" stands as a last-redoubt from earlier times.  The royal chapel is simple, but may contain the bodies of many Portuguese royalty.
Hunting birds were on display, courtesy of the local falconry club.  This one was surprisingly heavy.
The Ducal Palace, built in 1420-1422 in th latest Northern European style, served as residence and seat of government.  It was restored in the 17th and the 20th Centuries.
Dining room.  One of several rooms refurnished in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
The chapel and one of a [pair of furnished bedrooms.

On Friday, we made the 476 kilometer (296 mile) drive over to the Spanish Rioja region, another wine center. The drive was longish, but otherwise uneventful.  The weather was nice, but a long drive isn't fun top down, especially with as many bugs as were hitting us as we crossed the farm country. (The camera eventually would not focus past the layer of smashed bugs.)
Briones, our destination in the Rioja region, was a small town on top of a dramatic hill, a classic hill town with two churches and a few thousand inhabitants.  We tracked down our hotel, Los Calaos de Briones, by stopping at the restaurant of the same name.  Since it was 3:30 already, we were about to miss the lunch hour so we decided to eat before checking in.  The meal was quite good and we managed to finish later than even the Spanish normally do.

Our little hotel was classified as a "hostal", which I think simply means there is no one in the lobby, in fact, no lobby.  The room was large and modern, quite a change from Casa Sezim.  Parking was convenient, just outside on the small street, but this proved to be a problem that night as someone "flour bombed" our car and made a complete mess that we will be cleaning for the next month.  Not happy.
Los Calaos de Briones, restaurant and hostal
The next day, after washing the car with a small water hose at a gas station, we toured the surrounding Rioja valley and ended up at the Marques de Riscal winery, or more properly at "The City of Wine", a Frank O. Gehry building complex that was as imaginative and grand as the Bilbao Art Museum we had visited two weeks earlier.  We splurged on a lunch at the bistro and thoroughly enjoyed the food, service, and surroundings.
The hills and valleys around Briones

Marques de Riscal, The City of Wine
To and around Elciego
Back in Briones, we walked a bit and turned in early, having parked the car in a slightly different street location recommended by the waitress/hotel-clerk.  Before turning in, we checked out the night scene at the town square and  felt like we were invading a private celebration of something or other.  I think we were the only people around who were not born and raised in Rioja.  Overall, we found ourselves asking why we had stopped in Briones at all: it had only one hotel, ours, one restaurant of merit, no other attractions, and it felt unfriendly, in a quiet way. 

As Marianne said in our Booking.com review, there are plenty of places in Rioja to stay, avoid Briones.

On Monday, we drove through the Pyrenees, destination Lourdes.  A nice finish to Spain and reintroduction to France.

John and Marianne


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